Outcasts & Runaways – Part 1.18

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[DISCLAIMER: Please be aware there is graphic subject matter in this chapter.]

Chapter 17 – Thera

Consciousness came back slowly, and with it a tremendous amount of pain that made him consider staying in the dark forever. But it was too late to go back now, so Barrenger let himself drift towards wakefulness, gathering his bearings a bit at a time.

The first thing he recognized was that his head felt ready to split open. This preoccupied his senses enough that it took him another several seconds to realize his arms were also aching and bent at awkward angles. Finally, against the demands of his throbbing head, Barrenger cracked his eyelids and took in his surroundings.

He was kneeling, his arms and ankles tied to a post behind his back in the middle of the Rukilef camp. Barrenger tried to summon his gift, but quickly gave up; the Rukilef knew his power, and they had made sure to tie him in such a way that he couldn’t get up any momentum to transform into the force needed to burst apart the ropes. He couldn’t even wiggle his fingers. How long he had been out, he had no idea – until he craned his neck around and saw the dusk-lit mountains.

It took him a second to realize that the switched peaks meant this was the opposite side of the mountains.

Barrenger swallowed against a dry throat as understanding briefly eclipsed his aches and pains. They had gone through the pass and were well beyond it. Rukilef terriroty. Any dim hope of rescue was long gone.

Lyn pather’ic ta?”

“Tul lyn, ay patho tendair i.”

“Sul damo ae think she will do with them?”

Barrenger blinked and squinted, carefully turning his attention to his left. Two Rukilef, apparently standing guard, had their backs to him and were murmuring to each other just loud enough to pick out. Their words seemed garbled until he focused, no doubt thanks to Salein giving him head trauma. He blinked a few times to try and clear his head, tuning back into the conversation as best he could. “It’s the Banishment for sure,” one answered the other.

“Ay.” The second’s shoulders tensed, as if he wanted to shudder but was too disciplined to do so. “I can’t imagine a worse fate. Not that the little halfbreed is a great loss.”

“Does this change the Fasha’s plans, do you think?”

“No. We’ll still be moving forward in three moons. My guess is this was all a diversion to scope out their defenses.”

“Makes sense. I’m looking forward to—”

“Psst!”

The hiss drew Barrenger’s aching head around, and he forgot the Rukilefs’ conversation in a wash of relief and disappointment. Samlin was tied to another post a few feet to his right, trying to get his attention. “You okay?” the temple guard whispered. “They’ve kept you out for two days.” His face was still streaked with dried blood from the encounter however many nights before, but at least he was alive.

“I’ll live,” Barrenger grunted quietly. He swallowed again, wishing desperately for some water. But he didn’t plan on drawing the attention of the guards to ask for it. “Sorry I got you into this,” he whispered, squeezing his eyes shut.

“Oh, shut it.” Samlin shrugged one shoulder stiffly against his bonds and whatever pain he was feeling. “I’m a free Haweyh, I make my own decisions. This one just didn’t turn out to be that bright.”

Barrenger might have laughed if he weren’t simultaneously filled with dread and fighting a splitting headache. He fought down both, determined to at least not look like a coward in front of the one person who still had any respect for him, however misplaced it was. “We’ve got to get out of here,” he whispered through gritted teeth. “But I can’t use my force transference like this. Any ideas?”

Samlin shook his head. “I might be able to keep them off me with a shield, but it won’t cut the ropes. And I don’t think I’m quite up for covering us both,” he added.

Barrenger rolled his shoulders, feeling for any weakness or give he could use to his advantage. The question of how they would escape all these Rukilef even if they did get loose fluttered through his mind, but he stubbornly ignored it. One problem at a time.

“Oy!”

Barrenger muffled a groan. One of the guards had noticed his movements and now came walking towards them. The green-skinned tulinai dragged Barrenger’s head up roughly by the hair. Barrenger glared at him, wishing he had the saliva to spit. The Rukilef cracked a smirk. “Looks like the prisoner is awake. Alert the Fasha.” The second Rukilef nodded and trotted off while Barrenger’s current guard sneered down at him as he backed away. His voice took on the clipped accent Barrenger was more familiar with, a strange change from the smooth Haweyhen he’d been speaking moments before. “Time to pay your final respects, whelp.”

“Well,” Samlin said with false cheer once the Rukilef returned to his post, “it looks like we’re going to see some action today.” The temple guard shook a dirty strand of white hair from his face and looked at Barrenger. “Look, Barrenger, whatever happens…”

“Thanks,” Barrenger said quietly, staring at the ground. The implied words meant more to him than he could say.

Rukilef, beastform and tulinai alike, were gathering in a wide circle around the prisoners. Some laughed and nudged each other, but a few of the faces were strangely grim. Whatever Salein has planned must be truly terrible if it makes these monsters nervous.

A drum pounded, and the noise of the crowd switched off. The booming rhythm sent fresh pain lancing through Barrenger’s head, but he forced himself to watch. He hadn’t noticed the Fasha’s tent directly in front of him until she stepped out of it, clad in her brown cloak and the same blood-red halter top and silk pants she had worn to the Council meeting. She was barefoot – but then, many of the Rukilef seemed to prefer that – and held a long dagger in her right hand. If Barrenger expected any gloating, he didn’t receive it; Salein acted as if he and Samlin didn’t exist, instead surveying the crowd impassively. With one raised hand, she silenced the drums. Every Rukilef bent on one knee and bowed.

“Let all who are gathered here bear witness!” Salein cried, her voice ringing clearly in the hush. “There is a traitor in our midst. Our own blood turned against us, fouled by the filth of those who serve the false god!”

Shouts burst from the crowd, at once tulinai and beastly. Barrenger grimaced at the sight of several beastform Rukilef snapping their jaws, so much like mindless animals eager to tear into a wounded ronak. The roaring quieted again as Salein held up another hand. “All here know the penalty for betrayal,” Salein continued, her green eyes burning bright in the fading daylight. “Our Underlord, giver of strength, master of fear, destroyer of nations, shall be appeased this day!”

What traitors?” Samlin’s voice, rough but full of fire, cut her off like a whipcrack. The brown-skinned soldier strained against his bonds, face contorted in righteous anger. “We are Haweyh, you bloody dogspawn! Neither of us owes any allegiance to you, filthy followers of the first Traitor!” Barrenger’s heart rose a fraction as Samlin thrust out his chin in defiance. “You may kill us, demoness, but our spirits belong to Élo, and whether or not we die tonight, the Haweyh will wipe you and your curse-corrupted souls from the earth one day!”

Snarls and mutters rippled through the crowd. Salein, however, did not look perturbed by Samlin’s declaration. She spoke coolly, not even looking his way. “You assume, worm, that I am referring to either of you.”

Samlin’s mouth opened, then closed in a puzzled frown directed at Barrenger. But Barrenger had seen movement in the direction Salein’s head was turned, and a deep foreboding suddenly loomed over him.

Brinak stepped from the crowd, hauling a white-skinned, green-haired servant by the arm. She barely resisted, her pink eyes dull with hopelessness. Barrenger’s blood turned to ice as the stone-faced beast warrior tossed the woman onto the ground before Salein.

“Who is that?” Samlin hissed to Barrenger. But Barrenger couldn’t tear his attention away. All she did was close her eyes!

But she had closed her eyes to an assassin. In that small way, she had betrayed her master.

And now she was going to pay for it. Because of him.

Daignak Tylic,” Salein murmured, looming over the cowering woman. “Do you deny the charges against you?”

“I…” Tylic buried her face in the dirt, arms outstretched so that they almost brushed Salein’s bare feet. “N-no, my Fasha.”

“Do you deny that you have betrayed your blood and heritage, displaying weakness and disloyalty towards your Fasha and thereby towards the Underlord himself?”

Tylic groveled in the dirt, her voice barely audible. “No, my Fasha.”

“No!” Barrenger fought his bonds, dread drowning out even his pounding headache. “No, you can’t! She didn’t do anything!”

Daignak Tylic,” Salein continued, her eyes rising to stare fixedly into Barrenger’s as she spoke in a fierce tone. “Tell all the charges against you, so that your guilt may be revealed beyond doubt.”

The woman trembled, hiccupping with sobs as she tried to control herself. But when her voice came, it was the eerie monotone she had used when in full servant mode with Barrenger. “My Fasha, I have committed the gravest of sins. I allowed the tainted one to fill me with lies. They… they sounded beautiful.” Her voice caught briefly. “I believed his lies that he cared for a Daignak as one would an equal, which is impossible and foolish. I believed his lies that he wished to change the fate of the Daignak, the ways that you have already improved beyond our greatest hopes.” She shuddered again, her voice rising suddenly to a wailing pitch for all to hear. “And, my beloved Fasha, I committed the gravest sin of all: I did not speak out when I saw him approach to slay you, our rightful and powerful leader. I did not speak, because I wanted to believe the lies more than the truth! The lies of the Haweyh, may the Underlord curse them forever!”

Barrenger felt as if he’d been freshly punched in the gut. He wanted to argue, to plead his case. No, I was… I was doing it for everyone’s good! I could have…

Could have what?

I was going to kill her and leave. Tylic was there to watch me, report on me. And she didn’t, because I talked her around to my side.

She would have gotten the blame either way.

“And will you accept the punishment required to absolve you of this grievous sin?” Salein continued. There was a strange solemnness to her tone. For the first time since he’d met her, his aunt’s feral smile had disappeared entirely.

A shudder passed through Tylic’s body, and for a moment, her eyes rose, meeting Barrenger’s. He went still, captivated by that brief gaze. There wasn’t even accusation there; her face, her very being, radiated resignation and despair. Never in his life had he seen a person so utterly devoid of hope.

The woman turned her face back into the dirt, her hands clenched. “I will do what I must to appease the Underlord and lessen my eternal suffering,” she whispered, her voice catching in a sob.

Salein bade the woman rise. Tylic staggered to her feet, arms clutching her sides, face slack. The Fasha raised the intricately carved dagger as the drums beat a fast staccato. Salein turned her stare on Barrenger, and there was fierce pride in her eyes. And Barrenger knew without a doubt that whatever she did next was intended specifically for him to see.

Then she handed the knife to the woman and stepped back. The drumbeats rolled, and Tylic raised the knife high over her head, tears streaming down her face. Barrenger and Samlin realized what was happening at the same time, and their simultaneous screams cut the air: “NO!”

The woman thrust the dagger with a pained cry into her own stomach, then fell to the ground. Barrenger gagged against an overwhelming urge to vomit as the woman went limp, the dagger rolling from her hand into a rapidly growing pool of her own blood. The drums stopped, and silence hung pall-like over the crowd for what felt to Barrenger like years.

“Her soul is cleansed!” Salein screamed, and the Rukilef roared back, stamping their feet and pounding weapons against shields or the ground. Triumphant, the Fasha of the Rukilef turned to Barrenger, her eyes blazing. For the first time, she spoke directly to him. “Even your pitiful god cannot boast of such devotion as this.”

Barrenger couldn’t tear his eyes away from the bleeding woman, even as two Rukilef came and dragged her off into the crowd. His gaze swept the faces of the fierce Rukilef warriors. None of them had tried to stop this. None of them showed a trace of pity or compassion for the woman who, by Salein’s own words, was as much Rukilef as any of them, whatever her skin color.

And why would they? The realization struck him like a stone. She had betrayed them, and they had executed her as surely as the Hawayh would have executed a traitor of their own.

“And now you, nephew.” Barrenger looked up, resisting the urge to gulp at the sight of Salein hovering over him. She reached down tipped his chin up further, smiling into his face as if she hadn’t just orchestrated the suicide of one of her own people. But there was a tightness to the smile that he hadn’t seen before. “Are you inspired by the devotion of your bloodkin? Even the weak like ill-born Tylic can end their life in a display of true strength worthy of our Underlord’s service. The rewards for one of your potential are much greater.” Her voice lowered to a beguiling whisper. “You needn’t make Tylic’s sacrifice. Even now, the Underlord can be merciful to those who choose the right path. Swear fealty to your true master, kill this Haweyh filth beside you, and you may still take your rightful place among your people.”

Hatred welled up in Barrenger’s chest, making his eyes and stripes flash. But as much hatred as he felt for this woman, the epitome of all the evil the Rukilef spread, an equal measure rained down on his own head in a hailstorm of accusations.

You came to kill someone, didn’t you? And you succeeded! You killed that woman. You’ve basically killed Samlin. You abandoned the only person who loved you unconditionally and delivered yourself straight into the hands of murderers. You even let your desperate neediness make you listen to the witch’s lies! Now you’re going to die in a cursed Rukilef ritual. And you thought you had any chance of being better than them? You deserve this! You might as well join them and end this charade once and for all!

NO! Barrenger slammed his eyes shut against the storm, against the tears he suddenly realized were streaming down his face. But stubborn, desperate determination welled in him. I’ll never become what she is! I’d rather die. I might die worthless, but at least I won’t hurt anyone else.

He thought of Samlin and turned to meet the golden eyes of this guard who had somehow begun to feel like a friend. Samlin met his gaze, determination on his face. I just wish… Élo, if there is some way Samlin could… But he couldn’t finish the prayer. If Élo had a plan to save Samlin from Barrenger’s stupid mistakes, it wouldn’t involve Barrenger. All that was left for the young men was to face their fate with dignity. He wouldn’t let Samlin die next to a coward.

Barrenger swallowed back the sour taste of fear and straightened as much as his bound position would allow. “I’ll never join you,” he spat, jutting his chin in defiance at the Fasha. “So if you’re going to kill me, get it over with. I’ve heard enough of your fetid voice to last a lifetime.”

A rough laugh came from Barrenger’s side. “Same for me,” Samlin called, his eyes burning with golden fire. “We die as Élo’s servants, witch. Do your worst!”

Salein seemed to ignore the Haweyh, studying Barrenger for a long, searching moment. But finally, a scowl filled her face. “So courageous,” Salein replied with quiet venom. “And such loyalty between a trueblood Haweyh and a pretender. It could almost bring tears to a milkheart’s eyes.” She leaned until their noses touched, her green eyes boring into his. “But no one said you were going to die.”

With feline grace, the green-striped woman rose to her feet and lifted her hands to the sky. “The judgement is set! Let all here witness the Underlord’s mercy rejected!” Nervous whispers ran through the crowd, currents of fear. Barrenger and Samlin glanced in confusion at each other, their bravado wavering.

“Be careful what you wish for, children.” A strange, grim smile tugged at the corners of her mouth as Salein’s hands began to glow. “You will not like my worst.”

The watching Rukilef did not cheer this time. In fact, as Salein’s stripes glowed and pooled selah in a thick cloud between her hands, many of them stepped back, and deathly silence shrouded the gathering. The selah hovered in a circle in the air before Salein, small crackles like lightning sparking at its center. Barrenger saw Salein’s jaw clench in concentration, but he couldn’t understand what she was doing. This wasn’t like any gift he had seen or heard tell of before.

With a scream of exertion that set Barrenger’s hair on end, Salein thrust her hands forward, and the circle, now as tall as the woman… opened. Barrenger’s jaw went slack as the circle sank inward upon itself, becoming a green hole in the sky that disappeared into infinity. Lightning crackled within, and as Barrenger stared into the nature-defying portal, he felt a terror like he had never felt before. Every hair on his head stood on end as the hole seemed to stare back at him from the underrealm itself.

Exhaling deeply, Salein turned to them, her body still swathed in the green glow of selah as she maintained an attachment to her creation. Her smile was more strained than usual, but she walked towards the two young men with familiar predatory grace. “Behold your fate, my nephew: the gravest punishment among our people. For your crimes against your blood and your bonds, you, Barrenger Szor Teshma, and your pathetic ally, shall be cast out of the world entire, to your ultimate destruction. Banished beyond all hope of return.” Her body stood silhouetted against the sparking portal, a grim silhouette before the hellish light. “And even your precious god cannot draw you back.”

Barrenger was so enraptured by the horrifying hole and the chilling words that he didn’t see Salein approach until her hands whipped out to clutch his pounding head in a painful grip. Her already-bright selah suddenly dulled with a sickly brownish-yellow hue. As she leaned close to hiss in his face, an unnatural echo followed her voice like a cry from the grave. “And I think, before you go, that we shall end your pathetic charade once and for all.”

The pain struck Barrenger then, bolts of energy shooting from her fingers into his head. It was a pain unlike any Barrenger had felt before – not because it was worse, but because it sank down into parts of him he hadn’t known could feel pain, as if his very selah ached. “What are you—?” he started to gasp, and then gagged, convulsing as if in seizure.

Then he felt his body begin to change – and understanding pierced him like a sword. “No!” Barrenger struggled against his bonds, against those clutching hands, terror unlike any he had tasted before destroying his last reserves of courage. ”No! STOP IT! NO!!!

The shift came slowly, agonizingly, like a disease swarming over his body and mutating everything it touched. He could feel his face stretching, his ears elongating, hair growing from every inch of skin, claws pricking his tied palms. Something unnatural was happening to his feet, and an appendage that shouldn’t exist on a tulinai body ripped from the back of his pants. Maker, please, no! his mind wailed in panic. No no no nonononoNONONO—

When Salein took her hands away, Barrenger crumpled in on himself, gasping in pain and horror amidst the dirt. He didn’t want to open his eyes, didn’t want to see what she had done; but he could feel it in every corner of his body. He forced his eyes open anyway, clinging to a last, desperate hope.

Salein looked him up and down from where she crouched by his head, frowning like an artist dissatisfied with her creation. The strange tint to her selah had gone, as well as the hair-raising echo, but the portal still hummed behind her. “Hmm. You aren’t as fully formed as I might have liked, but forcing the change is never as effective as choosing it willingly. Ah well.” She patted him condescendingly on his furry cheek and stood. “It will be enough to remind all of what you really are.”

Barrenger’s stomach gave out at last, and he vomited, spattering the edges of Salein’s cloak. Even after his stomach was empty, he retched, tears streaming down his face. Please, Élo, no… don’t let me be this…

But the arguments against his new reality fell flat beneath sickly, horrified understanding. Whether by Salein’s evil craft, or his own suppressed ability, he had shapechanged. He had a beastform.

He truly was a Rukilef now – inside and out.

On some unspoken signal, Barrenger was hoisted by the arms. Whether an aftereffect of whatever Salein had done to him or simply the result of more abuse than his body was meant to take, Barrenger offered little resistance while Brinak untied him from the stake and carried him towards the portal, his misshapen feet dragging in the dirt.

“You had your chance, whelp,” Brinak growled quietly as they approached the looming portal. Barrenger could almost have fooled himself into thinking there was a note of disappointment in the beast warrior’s voice.

 As Barrenger was lifted in front of Salein’s portal to Élo-knew-where, he looked back. Salein stood with arms crossed, deep satisfaction in her eyes. The Rukilef soldiers watched with mixed fear and disgust at his fate. But all of those paled to the expression on Samlin’s face. The wide-eyed, mouth-gaping stare of horror… and revulsion. Barrenger closed his eyes against it, but the image still hung in his mind, one last dash of fuel on the flames that consumed him.

“I’ll be sure to tell your mother the good news,” Salein said cryptically. Then Barrenger was hurled into a maelstrom of sparking green energy that swallowed him whole.


END PART ONE

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A/N: Well, that’s the end of Part 1, guess I’ll let ya’ll know when the rest of the book is done…

…Nah, I can’t leave you on a cliffhanger this mean. XD; The first chapter of Part 2 will be up next week, and yes, we’re FINALLY gonna see how these two intertwined stories come together! I’m still in the middle of writing Part 2, so I will probably stop updates there; Part 1 has been through a number of revisions small and large over the past few years, and I’m nervous to release much of Part 2 until it’s had the same chance. If you’re interested in becoming a beta reader, though, please contact me! I would love to find one or two people invested enough in the story to want to commit to the role! =)

Honestly I’m a little amazed I managed to write something as dark as this final chapter. I think it helps that I know where it’ll end up (and I avoided excessively graphic details). I really came to like Tylik, even adding in the scene where she and Barrenger first talk on the trail to flesh out her character and give her seppuku scene more emotional impact. So on the one hand, sorry if I tore anyone’s heart out, but on the other hand, doggonit I hope someone is as sad for her as I am! D:

Here’s a fun fact to distract from the sads: when I first created Barrenger, he was already in this ‘beastform’ look; that’s how I made him! He was actually a Danny Phantom fancharacter based off the show character Wulf, and then I fell in love with the grouchy doof and wanted to give him his own story. XD But eventually I came to the decision that an entire race of werewolf-looking people who ALSO come in rainbow colors AND have superpowers was a bit too ridiculous; thus came about the Rukilef shapechanging gift, later varied a bit to multiple potential beastforms, not just the doggish one Barrenger came in. I think it feels more believable now, which is a nice feeling for a writer to have.

Fun Fact #2: Mercury was also sort of a fancharacter, created in response to a random forum challenge of creating a Sailor Scout/magical girl based on an element from the periodic table. I never even really watched Sailor Moon, I just liked the idea. Mercury was created a few years before Barrenger, but it wasn’t until he came along that I somehow decided the two should be in a story together. The rest… has been a process, lemme tell you!

Fun Fact #3: The original story was way too much like X-Men: Evolution with a ‘club’ of super kids going around fighting crime. I am thankful for new story ideas over the years. XD;

Thank you all again for reading! Your Likes mean more to me than you know. Stay tuned next week for Part 2, Chapter 18, and I’ll be sure to keep people updated as my writing progresses!

-Jenn/River

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